23 November 2023

Turkey achieved prominence as a regional mediator by its pivotal contribution to the Black Sea grain deal in July 2022, and it is indicative of the importance it attaches to this role that the Turkish foreign ministry has a page devoted to the subject on its website. This records Turkey’s efforts at mediation in quite a list of conflicts and then dwells on its ‘pioneering role’ in promoting this form of diplomacy under the aegis of the UN, the OSCE and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), as well as by means of conferences on mediation in Istanbul and a training programme for junior OIC diplomats in Ankara. However, on the face of it, Turkey’s mercurial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not positioning himself well to mediate in the present conflict between Israel and Hamas, and there might be some among the drafters of that page on the foreign ministry website wringing their hands over his public statements. Nor does Turkey feature among those states touted for the task at the time of writing.

In the days following the horrific attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas on 7 October, Erdoğan at once swung into third party mode. However, as the death toll among Palestinian civilians following Israel’s disproportionate  military response mounted alarmingly, the Turkish president then pivoted dramatically to partisan mode: Hamas, with which Turkey had long had better relations than with the (West Bank-restricted) Palestinian Authority, was described as a ‘liberation group …waging a battle to protect its lands and people,’ whereas Israel was a ‘terror state … embracing fascism.’ This language had not boded well for a visit by Erdoğan to Berlin but it was dialled down just a shade in his meeting with the German chancellor and once more he said that he wished to help end the war.

President Erdoğan is a clever politician, and in recent months had been improving Turkey’s relations with Israel, with which it has certain common interests. Furthermore, when Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government falls it is widely expected to be replaced by one that has at least a little more sympathy with the Turkish president’s view of that government’s actions in Gaza (if not with his attitude to Hamas) and long-standing refusal to curb Jewish settler violence in the West Bank. As a result, if and when the conditions for a mediated end to the Israel-Hamas war ever become favourable I would not be surprised to see Turkey emerge in a leading role. It will certainly compete for it because such is the attention the conflict is commanding that pulling off a genuine ceasefire would be a diplomatic prize of immeasurable value.

Of course, Egypt and especially Qatar, which are leading in the hostage negotiations, will probably have something to say about this. Qatar has similar ambitions and achievements as a regional peacemaker to Turkey and has even stronger relations with Hamas, to the political headquarters of which it provides a home. There are also precedents for small states successfully mediating genuine ceasefires and even political settlements between much larger powers (Algeria comes to mind). But, unlike Turkey, Qatar has no diplomatic relations with Israel and its sustenance of Hamas would make its mediation of a real ceasefire an extremely bitter pill for Israel to swallow. My guess is, therefore, that – if and when the day comes – Turkey, which is a regional great power, might well emerge in pole position, with Qatar and Egypt, among others, providing it with support.